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Tribes, cyberspace and the communication society
The Internet develops its own order...
Weekly column for The Asian Age by Rishab Aiyer Ghosh
#46, 30/January/1995: Tribes, cyberspace and the communication society
Industrialization brought with it many social changes.
Concentrating power in cities, it expanded the value of
property rights and built a complex formal legal system to
enforce them. It gave birth to the powerful police force
as the means for keeping law and order in the urban
population of gathered strangers, and, while spreading
democracy, distanced people from the process of
legislation that affected them. All this is going to
change as the information revolution engulfs the planet.
Perhaps surprisingly, the social changes to come will more
closely reflect humans as they interacted millennia ago,
rather than as they did in the more recent past.
Before industrialization, cities were much less important.
The village (in an idealized history) was the key social
unit, as the tribe was in pre-agricultural communities.
Economic power, being geographically distributed, resulted
in considerable control by people over the informal rules
that governed them and their immediate environment,
despite the absence of democracy as we now know it.
Property rights were lax, especially in tribal society;
villages placed great importance on common land. There was
correspondingly little emphasis on a police force or
formal law. Order was maintained primarily through systems
of social punishment - reputation and taboo.
As cities formed, the value of owned property increased,
as there was little sense of community or common benefit
among strangers. Crime increased, property rights became
important to enforce, and taboo was no longer an effective
preserver of order primarily because unlike villages, the
city is not what I call a communication society. People
don't depend on each other in cities as much as in
villages, nor does the threat of ostracization work, as
social interaction is a far greater component of rural
than urban life. Urban society needed, and developed,
modern forms of centralized law enforcement.
As mainstream media and the general public discover the
relative anarchy of the Internet, they take fright at its
apparent disorder and suggest the need for government if
cyberspace is to have a future - people fear freedom. At
least until they experience it - after all, the Net has
been around long before it became front-page news, and has
evolved its own, distributed, law. Based on principles of
total freedom of expression and a strong dislike of
irrelevant content outside clearly defined zones,
infractions are met sometimes by the guerrilla action of
spontaneous protest, sometimes by ostracization.
This works because cyberspace is also a communication
society. While McLuhan's Global Village has become
extremely cliched, in this aspect cyberspace does resemble
a village. People on the Net may not be dependent on each
other for food and clothing, but they are for almost
anything else concerned with a cyber life. Cyberspace is
full of vibrant communities that do little else but talk,
and with social interaction at a higher level than at any
time in history, it is well suited to a system of social
punishment such as taboo; indeed, this may become the only
practical form of wired justice, and could be very
effective - in cyberspace, if nobody talks to you, you're
The similarity to pre-industrial communities does not end
with modes of governance, but extends to basic issues of
economics. Property rights in the infosphere are
contentious; they keep getting more impractical to
enforce, and will play a diminished role in a post-
industrial world as technology and people work around
attempts at formal legislation. Without realizing it, the
denizens of the Net have already created a vast 'cooking-
pot' market in software, news and information, based on
the very tribal notion of shared property and benefit.
That government and industry will work with such
disorganized economies is extremely unlikely, but they are
so inherent to the communication society that cyberspace
is, that they will survive, though perhaps occasionally
Technology and society go hand in hand, but sometimes
history repeats itself, if not without variation. Though
the realm of information forms but part of our lives, that
part will increase, and affect the rest. If we are a
communication society while in the ocean of information,
what might we be outside?
Rishab Aiyer Ghosh is a freelance technology consultant
and writer. You can reach him through voice mail (+91 11
3760335) or e-mail ([email protected]).
--====(C) Copyright 1994 Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED====--
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